The fire snapped gently and a small flutter of golden sparks drifted up the chimney as Jon entered Albert's warm sitting room. careful not to jostle the heavy silver tea set in his arms. Albert's desk was a sea of papers as usual, leaving him no place to set down his hot and uncomfortable burden. "Master Albert? Your tea."
Albert's head was bent among his papers, the firelight turning his reddish hair into a brilliant nimbus around his pale face. His pen scratched to a finish and he blew gently on the ink to dry it, then folded the paper into neat rectangles and set it aside. This done, he looked up and gave Jon a faint smile. "Of course. I nearly lost track of the time."
From a distance, Albert merely looked young and serious, until he came closer and one could more clearly see his haggard eyes and the lines of stress that cut across his once-boyish face. At nearly twenty, Albert had been in control of the Ark of Destiny for almost two years now, taking up the reins of leadership after the tragic death of their founder Lamium. Albert did his job willingly and he did it well, but everything light in his spirit seemed to have died along with Lamium. When Albert stopped to address them, many of their people preferred to study the floor, the wall, or their hands rather look him in the eye.
Jon had only been a member of the Ark for a few months before Lamium had died, but he had struck up a rapport almost instantly with Albert, won over by the other's openness and generosity. Now, he sometimes lay awake at night, trying to hold on to the memory of Albert's laughter and the way his eyes had been almost permanently squiched up from smiling. With each day that passed, it grew more difficult to remember.
Albert sipped his tea cautiously, then drank a little more deeply. "Status report, please."
"Yes, sir." A little digging in his pocket brought forth the small notebook that held the most recent information on the status of the Ark's various projects, and Jon flipped to a point about halfway through the book and began to read.
"There has not been much headway with Laxisland; there is still only one convert from that village and the villagers continue to be hostile, if not acting as if they are downright insane. Likewise, Little Twister is beginning to look like a lost cause--"
"Tell the development team to continue researching a workable system of irrigation for that area. Let's see how quickly they change their tune once we can bring them the water they so desperately need."
"Yes sir. Helga thinks that the documents that were recently uncovered might tie into the tools and drawings found at Dig #73; there was a slight cave-in at Survey Point #23 but thankfully no one was hurt. The team sent to try and re-open Survey Point #11 after the cave collapse reports that they are not having much luck with the excavation and they think the area is too geologically unstable to pursue things any further; apparently there have been several "rumbles and small tremors" over the past few weeks, and they're afraid that there will be another catastrophe like the one that closed Survey Point #11 in the first place...."
Albert took another sip of tea. "And?"
Damn. Trying to act nonchalant, Jon flipped a few more pages and made a show of scanning his remaining notes. "Umm..that's pretty much all, sir," he said and felt his cheeks burn as Albert looked at him.
"Nothing at all about the tip from Little Rock?"
Oh no. Jon squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. "There was...absolutely no sign of the Maxwell Gang, sir. The tip...was apparently false."
"Apparently false." Albert's voice was absolutely level, devoid of all infliction. "So once again those Drifters have managed to elude us?"
"It-it seems so, sir."
Except for a few soft crackles from the fireplace, there was absolute silence. Trickles of nervous sweat ran between Jon's shoulder blades.
Albert's next words were very soft.
"Almost two years, Jon. Do you realise that it's been almost two years since Master Lamium was murdered by those he once trusted? Nearly two years and we are no closer to bringing those Drifters to justice? My shame grows greater with each day that goes past without their capture." Albert's voice began to rise. "I've tried everything, we have justice on our side and yet they've disappeared as if into thin air and my--Master Lamium's spirit will not rest until he is avenged! I can hear him at night, Jon, talking to me! Telling me that he suffers because I can't find those responsible for his death!"
Jon stood stock still as the tide of Albert's words flowed around him, hoping that Albert wouldn't notice how his hands were shaking. Another one of his bad days. I thought that maybe...he was getting a little better...
"Soon, sir," he mumbled once Albert fell silent. "Very soon, sir."
All the anger seemed to have drained out of Albert, and he sagged back against his chair, fingers working among his papers. Jon quietly started to neaten things up, hoping the activity would act as a cover for his silence. He neatly stacked the tea things back on the tray, swept a bit of garbage into the bin and looked about for anything else out of place.
He hesitated when he noticed the square glass bottle lying only partially covered near Albert's left arm. He's been at the Kahi, again. "Sir, haven't you..." He stopped short once he saw the expression on Albert's face and groped frantically through his brain for a better way of putting his thoughts. "I mean, kahi is very strong and it's been proven to cause nervous trouble in people who drink it too often, so perhaps you should cut back a little? We can't afford to have you ill, sir."
"No, I will not cut back," Albert said, his voice suddenly calm, but with all the warmth of a wind from Laxisland running through his even words. He plucked the bottle from where it lay and turned it between his fingers while the fireplace cast chips of light on the bottle's thick sides. He put the bottle back down again and it clunked softly against the hard wood of the desk. "It helps me think."
Jon stood in helpless silence, clutching the tea-tray in his hands, as Albert rose and walked towards the fire, clasping his hands behind his back as he neared the flames. From where Jon stood, Albert was nothing more than a dark blot of shadow outlined with flickering gold, a small figure against the towering mantle of the fireplace.
"You can go now, Jon."
He blinked. "Sir?"
"Go to sleep, Jon," Albert said quietly, resettling himself at his desk. He shuffled some papers, opened a few drawers to look inside. "I'm about to head off to my own bed as well."
His eyes didn't quite meet Jon's as he said this, and Jon obligingly shifted his own gaze in order to spare Albert any embarrassment. Both of them knew full well that Albert's last statement was a lie, but Jon was not about to press the point.
"All right then," he replied, starting to back out of the room, casting one final glance around to ensure that nothing had been left behind. "Ah--sleep well sir."
"And you as well." Albert didn't even look up as he left, but his voice had softened slightly.
Jon laid the tray down, closed the doors softly behind him, then bent to pick up the tray. Balancing it carefully between both hands, he set off down the hallway, his thoughts muddled in a dull, thudding sort of weariness. He's getting worse. Those Drifters...the reward doubles every month, we've searched high and we've searched low, but it isn't enough. No one thought they'd be able to elude us for so long...and Master Albert will have no peace at all until they're captured.
The light globes in the hallway were growing dim, a sign that curfew was about to officially begin, and Jon strained his eyes against the growing darkness so he wouldn't miss the turn-off for the stairs. Tonight, he'd been planning to help Helga with the translation of the ancient texts they'd recently uncovered, but he was suddenly exhausted and his shoulders throbbed with tension.
There's simply no way I can concentrate on ancient runes tonight. I'll have to beg off and promise her another day.
One of the globes winked out entirely and Jon stopped to frown at it. He'd have to get someone from Maintenance to come and fix it; yet another chore to be done, another line on his list. He started to walk again, the tea set clanking gently, in rhythm with his steps.
It's so hard, watching him try to stay strong for our sake. And if there wasn't enough trouble already, the leader of that "Circle of Umbra" has been coming 'round much more often lately than he used to, and every time he does, Master Albert is so agitated afterwards...
"Who are you? WHAT are you?" Albert's voice, thinned with anger, anxiety and fear.
"Get AWAY--!" A muffled crash from Albert's room, as if something very large had been tipped over and Jon's already unsteady heart skipped another beat.
The tea set crashed to the ground.
Another yell, and this time Jon could hear a second, stranger voice underlying Albert's.
"Master Albert?" Jon yelled, breaking into a run, pulling his cassock away from his legs so it wouldn't trip him. It was only a short distance to Albert's rooms--nothing had come up behind him, he was certain of it, so what could have possibly---
His hands fumbled at the knob. He hadn't locked the door behind him. "Master Albert! Albert! Please!" He was nearly voiceless from lack of breath. "Open the--"
The roar of a bullet ripped through the air, cutting off all words.
Left alone, Albert looked through his papers for a few moments more, than gave up. Acid was rising in the back of his throat and he fought down the familiar panic and nausea that always accompanied news of those Drifters slipping through their fingers again. He was no closer to avenging Master Lamium then the day when the Drifters had managed to cold-bloodedly escape during the chaos that had followed their crime and each day just drove the splinter deeper...How much further could they run?
Albert cradled his aching head in his hands. And the Master of the Umbra group...says that if we bring Virginia Maxwell to him, we will achieve all that we desire...
"No matter how far you run, Virginia Maxwell," he muttered to the air, "I'll be right behind you. I swear to you that you'll have no peace until I bring you to justice for all the wrongs you've committed against myself, the Ark and Master Lamium! I swear that I'll be the hand of justice that crushes your misdeeds under its mighty fis--"
There was a sound like a snicker from the darkness.
"Bravo, kid. It's like listening to Princess all over again. Well...actually she'd be much less florid, but the sentiment would be the same."
Albert nearly jumped out of his skin. "Who said that? Where are you?" he demanded, his eyes searching the room. There was no way anyone could have gotten in or out without his notice, so what--
"However, I hate to break it to you kid, but you're wrong about her murdering your beloved "Master Lamium". If you knew anything, anything at all about that girl, you'd know she's too pure and good to do something like that. So good and sweet and virtuous she'd make an angel vomit. So give it a rest, kid. You're chasing a chimera."
Albert stood up so fast he knocked his chair over. "What is this trickery? Show yourself!"
He was answered by a laugh.
A very quiet, nasty laugh.
From the shadow of the ornamental pillars in the center of the room, a nightmare stepped out.
It was taller and more massive through the upper body than any normal human could be, and sharp green fins sprang from its arms. Over its shoulder was a massive bladed weapon; the creature shifted position slightly and Albert saw that it was no blade, but a bayonet, one of the most difficult ARMs to use and master. It--it has a human weapon? What is this?
Strangely, it was garbed in what looked like human clothes as well; white pants, ordinary brown boots and a black turtleneck that had ripped along the neck and abdomen, showing a small section of stony green skin. The maroon jacket it wore showed similar tearing along the bottoms of the sleeves, which were plainly too short for the creature's arms; it was almost as if the jacket had been originally intended for a normal-sized human male...
"What is this? What are you?" Albert whispered, his hands frantically feeling behind him for the small panic button that was installed in every room.
Instead of replying, the thing just tilted its head and stared at him. Watching it, Albert had to admit to himself that as horrifying as the body was, the face was considerably worse. The creature's hair bristled like a porcupine and shone like metal in the firelight and the face underneath the hair was narrow, pointed and strongly reminiscent of a skull Albert had once found out in the desert, a skull bleached and worn almost to splinters by the elements and time.
There was no mouth to that face, only a series of slender slits running along the jawline. The eyes...the eyes were just twin points of gold sunk into a sea of blackness.
Albert's hands stabbed behind him, seeking the button.
"Oh, I'm so sorry; were you looking for this?" The creature held out a hand; cradled in the massive green palm was something small and white. "'Fraid I took the liberty of removing it while you were out." Its eyes narrowed. "I'm on a tight schedule here. The last thing I need is interruptions."
"What is the meaning of this?"
"Meaning? Who said there had to be a meaning?" The creature laughed again, the sound of something small and dry rattling within a hollow space. "You read too much. That's the joke, you see...'meaning'? There usually isn't one. But if you absolutely have to have one..." The monster's brilliant gaze came to rest squarely upon Albert's own. "Let's put it this way. You and I both seek the same prey and--" the bayonet was suddenly leveled at Albert's chest "--I'll be damned if I let someone like you put your hands on Princess before I can."
"P-princess? Who are you? WHAT are you?"
"Does it matter? Listen, kid. I have scores to settle with Virginia Maxwell that go back far beyond yours," the thing said, and to Albert's increasing horror, started to advance on him. "I've been waiting patiently for a long, long time now--"
In Albert's mind, everything clicked together.
"You're in league with those Drifters, aren't you," Albert breathed, his panic forgetting in a rising tide of anger. "They sent you here to kill me, didn't they. Yes, that must be it!"
"Wrong again! Weren't you listening? Princess is a good girl. One down; care to make another guess?"
"I won't let you succeed! We have a holy mission and it must be carried out for Master Lamium's sake! GET AWAY--"
Frantically trying to put distance between himself and that thing, he threw all his weight against his desk and shoved it at the creature with all his might. To his immense relief and surprise, the desk hit the creature squarely in the stomach, knocking it back onto the floor and then finished things by toppling over, crushing the creature beneath it. There was a brief yell from the creature, swiftly cut off, and then--
Blessed silence. There was no movement from under the desk, no sound, and Albert, giddy and weak from adrenaline, began to laugh.
He laughed until the creature simply put up a thick arm and tossed the desk right off its body. Albert, the laughter dead in his throat, found himself looking down the barrel of the bayonet once more.
"Nice try, no dice. Sorry kid, but I have my orders, and you...you need to rest..."
The bullet caught him hard in the shoulder and as Albert went down, gagging on the blood that suddenly filled his mouth, he saw Master Lamium's face, his eyes filled with the sorrowful pity of regret, swim before him.
On the hills above the Ark of Destiny, a massive purple wolf lolled in the grass and waited.
It snapped gently at some passing butterflies, sniffed in the direction of the moon and stars and examined, with great interest, a mole that had been unwise enough to burrow up next to it. While engaged in this, the wolf's long ears turned this way and that, sifting all the little noises that drifted through the night, waiting patiently for one particular sound.
As it studied the mole, a sudden breeze rose and the wolf tensed, the mole forgotten. Then, in response to some unheard and unseen signal, it grinned savagely, showing off shining silver teeth.
---Excellent. He's done it; exactly as planned. Splendid work.
Presently a figure could be seen in the distance, walking slowly in the direction of the wolf. Twice it stumbled, the second time nearly falling, and was forced to make use of the bayonet it carried in order to stay upright. Once it steadied, the figure resumed walking, but it was now surrounded by a halo of soft green light, and with each step it took, its form grew smaller.
The wolf straightened abruptly as the figure drew near, its tail snapping back and forth through the air behind it. He moves as if he was ninety instead of twenty-five.
---Are you well?
There was a brief burst of green light and then the glow faded entirely, revealing a young, blue-haired man, somewhat shorter and slighter than demon he had just been. With a shaking hand, he flipped his long bangs out of his face and shook his head.
"I feel kinda strange. Hollow." The young man managed, with much fumbling, to strap his bayonet onto his back, then doubled over, breathing heavily. When he straightened again, sweat was pouring down his face. "Like--like a balloon with the air leaking out..."
The wolf cocked its head to one side and studied him for a moment, its yellow eyes narrowed into gleaming slits.
---You do look rather peaked, it admitted.
This drew a delicate snort from the wolf and another tail flick. ---Perhaps I should not have brought you out so soon, but I had little choice in the matter. Our window of opportunity has narrowed rather sharply and we simply can not afford to wait any longer. I'm afraid that you'll have to bear with me until your strength returns fully.
The wolf turned then and stared intently at a spot in the grass just a few feet away. Under its gaze, a slice of darkness appeared and slowly grew in size until it was large enough for both man and wolf to pass through. Carefully taking the young man's wrist between its massive teeth, the wolf lead him towards the portal; he obediently stumbled along behind, his shoulders bowed beneath the weight of the bayonet.
---Come. We will return to the other side. You will rest and I will bring you some more energy.
"Fine. That's just fine," the man mumbled.
---And while we wait, we shall hold a little discussion on that other matter that concerns you, Janus...
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